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Former Mayor Karl Dean Recalls Leadership Priorities, Forecasts Nashville’s Needs

Karl Dean

In a 50-minute convocation Monday in the Wedgewood Academic Center, former two-term Nashville Mayor Karl Dean used his experience running the city to paint a picture for the importance of having specific priorities in the way anyone approaches their work. In recalling the three priorities that he believes made his administration successful–public education, public safety and economic development–Dean also emphasized that these are the same issues he still sees as the crux of what Music City needs to focus on as it moves forward.

He opened the lecture by noting that his campaign platform revolved around those three priorities and that he believes they are interrelated, interdependent and critical for any metropolitan area. In terms of economic development, for example, he said, “You want to be a city of opportunity, but it’s also important to the city’s tax base. If you want to have strong fire and police forces as well as great public education, then you have to have a tax base to pay for them.”

Nashville’s economy, he noted, benefits from the stable industries like healthcare management, hospitality and universities that help attract and retain educated work forces and frequently spawn new entrepreneurial ventures that further grow the city. “The music industry is also important not so much for the sheer number of people it employs, but because it gives the city a special edge. There’s a huge creative element that’s a major positive.”

When Dean was first elected in 2007, his term was dealt a significant blow only five months in as the country encountered a deep recession. His platform priorities had to be reflected, then more than ever, in the budgets he proposed. “When making decisions, having clear priorities really makes a difference.”

Though a number of Metro positions were eliminated during the recession, Dean made a decision to not cut the education budget and to push forward on a plan to build a new $650 million convention center. “A city has to have enough confidence to invest in itself… People would argue that you shouldn’t do this now, but we didn’t wait. It was the really the exact right time to build during a recession because it gave the city a shot in the arm, and with the economy in a ditch, building costs were significantly cheaper.”

In addition to construction and related employment that came with the convention center, affiliate projects like the Omni Hotel and Country Music Hall of Fame expansion also moved forward, allowing Nashville to weather the country’s economic storm better than most cities. “To build [the Music City Center] now would cost $50-75 million more, and we’re over $50 million ahead of where we thought we’d be in paying for it.”

Even in retaining a strong focus on his three priorities throughout his administration, Dean said there’s always more work to do. “Education, public safety and economic development never reach a place where you can check them off a list… You can never say our public schools are good enough. It’s an issue that remains a constant.”

While he believes those issues will still need attention in the years to come, Nashville’s success and phenomenal growth in recent years has also led to other challenges for the city, topics that he saw as being front and center in the most recent mayoral election: affordable housing, cost of living, transit, city demographics/diversity and health.

Dean is currently serving as Distinguished Visiting Professor of History and Politics at Belmont while also chairing a new school-choice education nonprofit called Project Renaissance.

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